This is what I meant

I did a series last year (starting here) on the fundamental difference between the original Christian idea of freedom, and the almost universal modern perversion of freedom into “autonomy”, even within the churches. The series arose from my research on the historical teaching on the goodness of creation. Without grasping the radical difference in these two concepts of freedom, one cannot understand why the whole “free process” theology underlying most theistic evolution now is so far adrift from historic Christianity. In fact, it’s hard to comprehend historic Christianity at all.

Our own GD, commenting on Ted Davis’s piece about Ted Peters on BioLogos, makes the key point that “the Creation wishes to be subject to his will” as a clear consequence of its formation ex nihilo. This is profound.

It led me to discover a short essay by Anglican Peter Toon, making much the same points as my long series, only more succinctly. Read it, to get an idea of just how far modern Christianity has drifted in its attitude towards God. It’s here.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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14 Responses to This is what I meant

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, you accuse other people of resorting to “rhetoric,” but you characterize the straightforward idea of “freedom” as a real choice by an agent (certainly one of the legitimate uses of the word) as a “perversion.”

    You chastise the “free process” folks (rightly I think) for using a bad metaphor about choice to talk about particles, but then when GD makes his own bad metaphor in saying “Creation wishes to be subject to His will,” you say that it is profound. If we are talking about particles, or some raw unformed matter stuff, what can it mean to say it “wishes” anything? And if we are talking about a deer suffering death by a thousand cuts from a wolf pack (apparently part of the divine plan,) in what sense does the deer wish to play his role?

    I think what you mean is, God made the basic stuff, whatever it is, so the Greeks were wrong to think that you could explain something about the world by attributing some weird recalcitrance to it. If that’s what you mean, why not say it some way that doesn’t impute intention to stuff? God made the stuff ex nihilo, and so the stuff was what He intended, and was suited to His further creative purposes. I like well chosen metaphors, but sometimes they are just rhetoric, and what applies to the goose, well, you know.

    It seems to me that you are doing what the “free process” folks do – mushing together the separate questions of freedom/randomness of inanimate nature and the nature of human freedom, not in the paradoxical Christian sense of the freedom that is found in being God’s servant, but in the sense that I would guess has always existed, of the freedom to actually make a choice that is fixed when it’s done, but really could have been otherwise. I’m not willing to concede that the very use of the word in that sense is some kind of “perversion,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Calling it that seems like an attempt to win an argument by insisting on an equivocation.

  2. GD says:

    I have made some detailed comment on my understanding of freedom and law previously, so I will not repeat here. I think that freedom that we as self-aware humans may understand is different to the way we may discuss nature – simply put, we are free to choose from possibilities present in the world that exhaust our ability to choose (more then we can contemplate), but that the choices and decisions that we make ‘set’ us and our own individual world, so that we must (like it or not) accept (or have placed upon us, and also other humans) the responsibility that accompanies the choice.

    I accept png’s criticism of the metaphor only in the sense that he states, as some type of criteria for each and every action in the creation. I think the creation is subject to its own ‘beingness’ in that the deer and the wolf are ‘bound’ by their ‘nature’ (again I know that brief remarks can easily be shown to be inadequate).

    The metaphor (placed in brackets) is one that is meant to convey a sentiment, and is derived from aesthetics, in that the creation, through its splendour, wishes to be subjected to its creator’s will.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      pngarrison + GD

      I took GD’s “wish” language as obviously metaphorical – inasmuch as it is the kind of metaphor Scripture uses quite freely of the stars singing for joy at the creation, the trees clapping their hands etc.

      However, pngarrison is right to point out that there’s a risk of pots calling kettles black in my former criticism of free-process theology. If nature can’t make free decisions to act independently of God, it can’t make free decisions to serve him either. “The Creation” can no more be legitimately described as a volitional agent than “Nature.”

      My point there would be that those espousing the “freedom” trope in practice take their rhetoric far beyond any metaphor (even if their metaphor is valid at all). It’s one thing to picture inanimate creation as joyfully fulfilling its Creator’s will – in prosaic terms meaning it glorifies him simply by being exactly what he willed it to be. It’s another, I would argue, to make nature’s autonomy the ethical imperative of God, accusing him of being a tyrant or puppet-master should he breach it, lauding the concept of self-creation, likening nature to a child set free by its parent and so on.

      I believe what GD means is not simply that basic matter is completely malleable by God, but that all he has made serves his purposes in an uncoerced way. Ex nihilo creation implies that all God’s works – even contingency and chance – are his “willing” servants. In that sense, the deer that succumbs to the wolf pack (which Augustine would describe as serving by yielding its substance to a higher nature) is analogous to the saint who willingly suffers sickness or persecution or even captivity in the service of the gospel. Both may be troubled or terrified (Ps 104.29), but both are living out “whose service is perfect freedom.

      The possibility of sin in rational creatures is clearly a further layer linked to the dignity of being created in God’s image – but even that, in the ultimate sense, fails to achieve autonomy from God (Prov 16.4 may relate) but rather loss of freedom.

      As for using the word “perversion”, I’d defend it as being specifically used in my OP in the context of the Christian theological concept of liberty, spelled out (as Peter Toon’s piece says) in both the teaching of Scripture and the teaching of the classical theologians. In that context, libertarian free-will is a perversion, though it may be quite legitimate in political or sociological discourse. Hence the Council of Orange’s negative response to Pelagius’s claim that freedom is the central constituent of human nature.

  3. pngarrison says:

    As something of a tangent, let me ask this. It seems apparent that, living at the time we do, we are scientifically privileged, relative to those in centuries past – we have the benefit of immense expansion of scientific knowledge of recent times. You maintain that “the church” has strayed far from historical Christian views of theology. Were those who lived before say, 1600, theologically privileged – living in a time when theology was often done better than it is today? Presumably, the same Holy Spirit who led the old theologians is still active today. Jesus has been the real leader of His church at every point in time. I doubt that He thinks things are out of control. It is often thought by people who study the history of theology that revelation has been progressive over history. Is genuine theological progress possible in your view, or is some one of the old time religions always the true one? I’m not asking, while thinking that I know the true answer. It’s something I wonder about.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      A complex one, this! When one reads church history the very opposite often seems the case: “How did these guys and their monasteries/ politics/ rituals call themselves Christians at all?” And then you see behind the superficial cultural things to the theology and realise that in some things they were progressing, and in others regressing. Just so today. And as you rightly say, in all ages the Church is Christ’s project, which he manages just as surely as he did in the Book of Acts, warts and all. Part of that, though, is for his people to be his wart-cauterisers.

      Science and theology work in different ways, though, just as science and philosophy do. The “progress” of science is sometimes overstated, but it’s true that what was overturned a century ago is likely to stay overturned. But in philosophy, today’s established consensus can later be replaced by a revival of ancient ideas, as also in theology – which, remember, is essentially the transmission of the truth once and for all delivered to the saints, in Jesus. Thus many or most revivals of Christianity have been reformational in character, as new fashions have diluted the gospel. New truth has tended to be the clarification of old truth.

      One complication is that science, too, has philosophical and even theological roots that can alter its character: I guess it’s just too new an enterprise for that to have been clearly seen yet, though one might argue that the concept of information is beginning to rehabilitate long-eclipsed Aristotelian ideas of form in science.

      Yet theology too progresses, for example in the availability of literary or historical knowledge unavailable to those of earlier times. ANE studies, for instance, cast light on Genesis, as my friend’s excavations in Turkey cast light on the early Church and Jewish diaspora. In some ways, then, earlier people had advantages, but in others disadvantages. The Fathers had to establish basic doctrine against what every Christian now would see as sheer nonsense: the Reformers had the opposition of both pre-Tridentine Catholicism and rampant spiritual anarchy.

      We can, however, harvest the best of the past (especially what endured in all traditions), whereas we’re more vulnerable to the spirit of our own age. My own position is that the touchstone is Scripture, against which the traditions of any age should be compared.

      That’s not a definitive answer either, but does it help?

  4. pngarrison says:

    I actually wrote a comment as a supplement to my first comment. I thought I had sent it along, but apparently I forgot to hit the send button and my thought vanished into the ever-present bit-bucket.

    The gist of what I said was that using the word “autonomy” to refer to what I called freedom#1 (a choice that we make where we really could have been chosen something else) is a bit of rhetoric itself, since it implies something done in isolation from God. If freedom#1 exists, it’s clear that it could only exist as a gift, limited in scope, from God. Given that we are born alienated from God and subject to the deceptions of the original Big Liar, if we do have a genuine choice at the most essential point(s), it could only come about if the Holy Spirit clears a space around us (so to speak) and makes it possible.

    I’ve never read much Pelagius, but my impression is that he got carried away about freedom, maintaining that we are actually capable of choosing to be sinless. It’s not fair to equate every concept of libertarian free will with some obviously unrealistic (from any Christian perspective) idea of total freedom (whatever Pelagius actually did say.)

    When you say that libertarian free will IS illegitimate in Christian theology, but acceptable in other contexts (where it would really mean “uncoerced by the power of other human beings,”) it sounds like you are saying that our universal perception of free choices is everywhere and always an illusion. I’m not sure that that’s true, and I’m not sure that all those old theologians, bright and good as many of them were, necessarily have the last word on the matter. There were (and are) some Arminian theologians (and evangelists) who seem to me to have been people who knew the Spirit as surely as any Calvinist type.

    As far as our usual concerns with the “free process” TEs, the alleged “freedoms” of the non-human part of the creation can be dealt with much more easily than the great puzzle of human freedom and what it really means. I think when you mix the two issues together, you complicate things unnecessarily and just make things more difficult for yourself and those of us who think you have something important to say.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Last point first – I’ve tried hard in the past to keep “free will” out of “free process”, but they’re confused in the very concept of the latter. In any case, people have usually responded with comments on free will even when I’ve excluded the idea in a blog – and maybe that’s inevitable, since “free will” per se is a key concept in our own corner of the created order.

      Working backwards, my point about the “legitimacy” of libertarian free will in some contexts was that, in daily situations, the deep issues of free will are no more relevant than quantum physics is in getting to work (unless you’re a robin 🙂 !). I vote for Mr Smith after deliberation, assuming that I was equally free to choose Mr Riley, and my choice was not coerced by any other person. The discussion of whether I made that choice in a compatibilist way in a Laplacian deterministic Universe, or within the concursive will of God, is another matter: the first is irrelevant whilst democratic structures are in place, and the second can be handled colloquially by saying something like “God ultimately appoints governments, even though we vote,” a consideration of course only made by faith anyway. But we’re bound to consider the deeper issues (incidentally, The OFloinn has a good piece on free will here.

      OK, to your first point – absolutely right on. “Autonomy”, before one gets to “ultimate” theological concurrence issues, has to deal with the issue of the sinful will in bondage, which was Pelagius’s biggest error, and one often made today, as the Toon article points out. In practical Christian terms, the real argument is over the nature and extent of grace. To what extent does sin limit our free will, however we define that? The idea that we are free to choose or reject God by virtue of our free will is the key issue on the Pelagian-Semipelagian-Arminian-Reformed-Determinist spectrum: the fact that there are believers in a number of those categories shows that it is not dterminative of true faith, but does not negate its obvious importance. Belief in autonomy in that sense makes for a very different approach to Christianity.

      However, I had in mind more the nature of God’s role in creation than in grace in the OP, closely related and easily confused as they are.

  5. pngarrison says:

    I feel inclined to tell an anecdote that may give you an idea of where I am coming from. I went to an evangelical liberal arts college (Westmont) and took a number of Bible and doctrine classes (mostly required, but some elective.) I ended up a philosophy major, and I got most of my pre-scientific training from an analytic philosopher. (I subsequently did a biology major, too, but that’s another story.)

    Once, we had a joint theology/philosophy seminar, and one of the theology faculty members preached something of a sermon on the point at hand, waxing eloquent with theological metaphors for quite a while. Finally, he stopped and my analytic philosopher mentor said, “Ray, I’m sorry, but I don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about.” If you understand that, you understand me to some extent.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      My reply might say a bit where I’m coming from on this. Someone like Ed Feser (or The OFloinn) would say it’s the mess that analytic philosophy has got itself into that makes it incapabale of understanding a theological approach to divine/human will (though that may not have been the specific subject of the seminar you mention).

      I’m told (as a non-philosopher) that Aristotle or Aquinas are as neglected in modern philosophical discourse as the works of Calvin would be in a liberal theological degree course (I was told they are considered “devotional”, not “theological.”) Accordingly, the thought-forms needed to make sense of such ideas are just not available – even when the same terms are used, the analytic philosopher has a completely different take on them. The only cure would be to immerse oneself in the old stuff, try it on for size, and maybe find it makes sense of things.

      Specifically (on the subject in hand), I find that it’s almost impossible for most people I encounter to think of “free will” in any other terms than “autonomy”, because since the Renaissance that has replaced the kind of ideas you find in Calvin, Luther, Aquinas or Augustine. And if one points out biblical examples, like Jesus as the quintessentially free human being to whom autonomy means nothing, usually it just “doesn’t compute”, and I hear no more about it from them.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Hello, PNG. I’m taking the chance that you might have stopped reading this page, but here goes:

      I think you said on BioLogos once that you weren’t knocked out by your undergrad philosophy studies, and that the aridity of philosophy was one of the things that drove you to the life sciences. Well, I don’t fault your choice of the life sciences, but I would defend philosophy — when taught properly. My experience of the “analytic” approach to philosophy (bearing in mind that this term is used fairly broadly and we may not mean exactly the same thing, but I suspect we do based on your remarks) is that it is for the most part an arid exercise, emphasizing cleverness in manipulating propositions and quite often explicitly or explicitly reductionist in its treatment of many existentially important questions. There are exceptions: the “analytic” philosophy inspired by the later writings of Wittgenstein has often been used, by various Wittgensteinians and Christian philosophers, to make philosophy more rather than less human and relevant (e.g., Rush Rhees, Paul Holmer), but mostly the analysts seem to live in a cold world that borders on mathematics and logic on one side and an epistemology of a decidedly anti-religious slant on the other side; they seem to have very little use for metaphysics, ethics or political theory as traditionally done throughout most of the history of philosophy.

      I would submit that if you had studied philosophy under people from, say, the Chicago school, with its emphasis on the great books and the great eternal questions, you would have enjoyed philosophy much more. And certainly philosophers educated in that way would not have answered the theology professor in that brusque and technical way; philosophers of the old school dealt regularly with theological questions and were familiar with theologians’ ways of speaking. It sounds as if your mentor was taking the old “religious language is meaningless” stance of Carnap, Ayer, etc. (Theologians’ language is muddy to those truly trained in rigorous thought. They don’t realize that the propositions they utter cannot be either verified or falsified due to their improper form. They need some more lessons in the precise definition of terms, in formal logic, etc., before they are worth listening to by philosophers.)

      I don’t know your mentor and can’t comment on him personally. I can say only that I’ve met many philosophers of the “analytic” school and they all strike me as rather one-dimensional thinkers, and usually as rather one-dimensional human beings as well. They are all far too impressed by mathematics and science (which are of course valid in their own spheres), and want to make philosophy more “scientific” or “rigorous” to gain more respect for it. But in fact the wider world cares even less about analytical or “scientific” philosophy than it cared about the old, more humanistic philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. Analytical philosophy is written by academic specialists for academic specialists; it is very little read outside of the academy and has very little influence outside the academy. It doesn’t even have much effect where it purports to be valuable: hardly any scientists or mathematicians check with the analytical philosophers to make sure they are proceeding rigorously in their work. They have their own standards of rigor which they worked out on their own, with no help from the analytical philosophers.

      Analytical philosophy is largely academic make-work, providing journals so that analytical philosophers can write articles and thus get tenure. It has almost no civilizational value. By contrast, other approaches to philosophy make serious inroads into the life of a culture. Think of the inroads of existentialism via Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, etc. Or think of
      Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, a more relevant book to the important subject of education than anything the analytical philosophers ever put out. I suspect that Bloom would have had no trouble at all understanding what your theology professor was getting at. And of course, Bloom had a gift for making the great thinkers of the past live in the modern age; his writings on Plato and Rousseau and other things are wonderful. The analysts, on the other hand, are the philosophical equivalent of computer geeks, speaking a technical language that no one but they understand, and, like computer geeks, understood by no one but themselves.

      Why spend years acquiring mathematical precision in philosophy, when one could spend the same years acquiring that precision in biology, chemistry, or physics, and be useful to the world? The philosophy that is useful to the world isn’t the philosophy that apes natural science; it is the philosophy that is the closest in spirit to the traditional humanities — literature, history, art, music, etc. You could read five years’ worth of analytical philosophy in technical journals, and not be one bit better as a human being, or one bit more insightful regarding social or political affairs; yet one evening spent reading Plato’s Apology, or one week spent reading Rousseau’s discourses, can make you considerably wiser, more thoughtful, more moral, etc. I consider analytical philosophy (in fact, almost all of 20th-century Anglo-American philosophy, whether analytical, positivist, whatever — there is considerable overlap in theme and spirit in all of it) to be a massive failure on the human side, and a betrayal of the heritage of the Greeks.

      When people ask me where to study philosophy now, I never tell them to do a degree in a North American philosophy department; I tell them to go to some place like St. John’s College, and take a Great Books program, where philosophy is still taught in the traditional and proper way, with its aim of making a young person a better human being, not in turning that person into a careerist, pseudo-scientific academic on the make. One should read the philosophers for the same reason that one reads Homer or Shakespeare or Boethius, not for the same reason that one studies set theory or nuclear physics.

      • pngarrison says:

        I pretty much agree with what you have to say. What Bob Wennberg (my a.p. mentor) did was not really so dry as that. (Neither he nor the other phil prof was very interested in science – in those days there was very little attention to phil. of science at Westmont, although an elective course was offered occasionally, I think.) He was interested in specific questions in ethics and the mind brain problem from a purely philosophical point of view. (I think he wrote a book or two later that annoyed some evangelicals by not taking the “approved” positions.)

        So in upper division classes we read some pretty difficult (for me anyway) modern philosophy books. I came to think that the approaches used didn’t make much sense, but it was a good thing for my 21 year old brain just to struggle through reading such difficult stuff and having to come up with my arguments in response for tests. (Nothing I ever read in science was remotely as difficult as some of that stuff.)

        The way it worked for me was that in college I got a rough outline of the history of phil. from the survey course, and then learned to think by sparring with Wennberg and my fellow students in the upper division classes, and to write by taking Bob’s tests and writing papers. I ending up disagreeing with Bob on a lot of things, but he gave me the mental workouts for several years that changed the way I went about thinking. Then, years later I read some Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, etc. either because I got interested or in some cases I had friends who wanted to read them with me. It may just be hubris, but it seemed to me that my philosophy experience (whether or not it is really accurate to call it analytic) better prepared me to read those things than my friends’ backgrounds in Bible/theology, education and software engineering.

        There were only 2 philosophy profs when I was at Westmont, and the other guy was Stan Obitts, who I think saw himself as trying to carry on Arthur Holmes’ (Wheaton) project, but Stan was on sabbatical my senior year, so I never really figured out what he was up to.

        I can see that it might be a more integrated way to learn the subject to just start out reading the primary sources in a great books program, but one way or the other most students are going to take a couple of years just to get their thinking caps, so to speak, and will have to reread the classic stuff to really see what it’s about. The few who go to grad school in philosophy will do that, but the majority will probably, like me, just return to things they found congenial/interesting/relevant. I liked what studying philosophy did for my brain, but I never considered going to grad school in philosophy, because I realized that science was calling my name. 🙂

        • Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks for that background, PNG.

          I’m glad you got some benefit out of the study of philosophy, even if it didn’t fire you up the way other subjects did. And frankly, though I’m more interested in Plato than in biochemistry, I’m more interested in biochemistry than I am in reading most of what passes for modern academic philosophy.

  6. pngarrison says:

    Finally did what Jon would have said I should have done first and read the article by Peter Toon. I agree that the uniquely Christian meaning of freedom as the Spirit- enabled ability to find “true” freedom in serving God is in the end more important in a sense than any other meaning of freedom. The trouble is, that if you insist on absolute election so that even the initial decision(s) to start down the narrow way is God’s alone, you don’t end up well. It is good to remember that the one group of people in Jesus’ time who were obsessed with being God’s Chosen Ones were also the ones that He said the harshest things to, in some cases offering them no hope at all, and reminding them that God was quite capable of making rocks (or even Gentiles, if you read between the lines) into children of Abraham.

    Some years ago I heard Peter Toon give a talk at a local Episcopal church, and my dad and I met him afterwards. I don’t remember the topic now, but I do remember that he seemed a wise and fine fellow to me.

  7. Jon Garvey says:

    Now, election was absolutely not on the agenda of the OP, but it shows how as soon as one mentions the “F” word, it will appear in the conversation. If one says election is “absolute”, one needs to be dealing with the concepts we’ve discussed above. Is it “absolute” in relation the the ultimate determining will of God, or with respect to God’s concurrence with the free decisions of his rational creatures, or in relation to his grace show towards sinners whose wills are in bondage? If one doesn’t start there, it becomes just another example of the one-dimensional “God forces us to believe, though we ought to be autonomous”.

    Your example of the self-assured Jewish opponents of John is interesting. Romans makes it clear that they believe they were chosen by desert – they trusted in their own righteousness, Paul says. Ultimately, then, their election was because of their own choice to be righteous, to be true childeen of Abraham (unlike the riff-raff getting baptized).

    The reply about God making “these stones” children of Abraham does, I’m sure, refer ultimately to the Gentiles. But in the immediate analogy, where does the power of election lie? Pick up a stone, and God can make it a child of Abraham. If the Gentiles are being alluded to, then it’s not their free will that’s being invoked, but the power of God unto salvation, surely?

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